Ritz pushes for universal pre-K program

By Alaa Abdeldaiem
TheStatehouseFile.com 

INDIANAPOLIS — Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz wants Indiana to have a universal pre-K program.

Ritz Tuesday wanted to make the Indiana Department of Education’s goal very clear ahead of the General Assembly’s budget session next year.

“Indiana cannot have a system of high quality when we have students that come to school unready to learn,” Ritz said. “We cannot have a system of equity when some students are exposed to early childhood education while many of our poorest and neediest are not.”

Ritz’s announcement comes after Gov. Mike Pence called last week for the expansion of the state’s current preschool pilot program, On My Way Pre-K. The five-county pilot program focuses on providing opportunities only for low-income families of four-year-olds residing in Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh counties.

Pence—who faced backlash in 2014 for halting a grant application that could have given the state $80 million in federal funds to use on pre-K programs—said Ritz’s plan will result in much discussion.

“I think that the framework we created, which really focused our resources on opening doors for pre-K education to kids that aren’t getting the enrichment in the home, is the right pathway,” Pence said. “I do believe the debate over pre-K education is a fulsome debate, but when it comes to disadvantaged kids, the benefits of opening doors of access to early childhood education is very significant.”

But Ritz wants pre-K to be available to all families, not just the disadvantaged. Her model includes a public-private partnership that would make preschool available for all. In the complete plan she intends to unveil later this week, the Indiana Department of Education considered programs and practices implemented in states like New Jersey when outlining the vision, according to Ritz.

Her approach, which would create more preschool openings while continuing to improve existing programs, will cost the state about $150 million a year, funds that Ritz said are readily available for use.

“Through a combination of leveraging federal dollars, reverting state allocations, and eliminating wasteful spending in the state’s budget, the funds are there if the political will exists,” Ritz said. “With less than one percent of the state’s annual budget, we can ensure that most of our children are kindergarten ready.”

Despite the opposing views, Ritz said she is confident statewide pre-K education can exist by 2020.

“Regardless of the politics, we can get this implemented,” Ritz said. “The department has already got early learning standards approved, is already working with infrastructure and has leveraged many of our deferral dollars to get more pre-K programs in the public school system. I’m hoping to leverage the voices of the public in Indiana, and as this is a topic I think people care deeply about, and I’m looking forward to the General Assembly and actually moving this forward.”

Alaa Abdeldaiem is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.